By Virginia Parker Staat
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
~ George Bernard Shaw
I recently edited a children’s book written by a Glaswegian friend of mine (aka, a native of Glasgow, Scotland). I quickly recognized that editing his book would take a bit more effort on my part than I originally anticipated. I had forgotten about the many differences between American versus United Kingdom styles of spelling and punctuation.
For National Punctuation Day, I thought it might be fun to look at some of those differences between these similar, yet sometimes very diametric, variations of the same language. We often forget that here in America, we don’t speak American. We speak American English. And since many of us were taught by teachers and professors from the United Kingdom, these differences often show up unexpectedly in our own writing. As an example, one of my very British English teachers taught me to spell endeavor as endeavour, color as colour, traveled as travelled, and center as centre (particularly if it’s a theater). I still prefer those spellings.
Why do Americans spell these words so differently? Evidently we can blame Noah Webster, the man who wrote many of our first grammar schoolbooks and the Webster Dictionary. He called it spelling reform. Some consider it American cultural independence. In England, many consider it word butchery. The official Merriam-Webster website had this tongue-in-cheek explanation: “The spelling reform… was based on the author’s combined vision of logic and aesthetics. He changed the -ce words like defence, offence, and pretence to -se; abandoned the silent ‘l’ in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming past tense; dropped the ‘u’ from words such as humor and color, and dropped the ‘k’ from words such as publick and musick. The ‘publick’ readily accepted many of these changes and just as readily rejected some of the others.”
During our travels, we have learned that American versus United Kingdom patrons even have different words for the same thing… and occasionally those words can offend. As an example, I discovered that it is quite rude to say fanny pack. Instead, it should be called a bum bag. Other words are simply confusing. Our cookies are their biscuits. Canned goods are tinned. Diapers are nappies. Underwear are knickers. Flashlights are torches. Windshields are windscreens. Shopping carts are trolleys. Fries are chips. Umbrellas are bumbershoots. And cattle guards are Texas gates.
As I edited my friend’s book, his punctuation also sent me scurrying to my style manuals. I had to confirm that the British version of punctuation left periods and commas outside the quotation marks rather than inside. (I learned along the way that English typesetters did this as a practical step to protect the delicate punctuation metal type from wearing out during printing.) I also learned that Brits don’t use periods after Mr and Mrs. They do use a period, however, to mark time between the hour and minutes such as 9.30 in the morning rather than 9:30. Of course, I had no problem with my friend’s Oxford comma. I, too, had learned to place a comma before the last item in a list of three or more things.
I am happy to report that my Glaswegian friend wrote to say he had accepted all my editing changes save one. He said he preferred his English spelling of fulfil to my American fulfill. I had to chuckle… fulfil is the only English spelling I recall that uses fewer letters than the American English version.
This September 24th Americans will celebrate National Punctuation Day once again. It is interesting to note that in spite of the United Kingdom’s obsession with punctuation and grammar — after all, they are the same folks who established the Apostrophe Protection Society — it is only in America that we have moved to provide punctuation with its own personal holiday. Bloody amazing.